INTERVIEW: Charles Correa, architect

may 1995

Asia's High-Rise Hangover
Charles Correa, architect and planner

Renowned for his environmentally sensitive approach, Indian architect Charles Correa possesses a graceful touch that is evident across his native country. His accomplishments include the Gandhi Memorial Museum in Ahmedabad, the Jawahar Art Center in Jaipur and the British Council headquarters in New Delhi. Educated at Bombay's St. Xavier's College, the University of Michigan and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Correa returned to Bombay in 1958. Since then, in addition to designing high-profile buildings, he has pioneered low-cost housing in India, Peru and other developing countries.

Last year Correa was honored by Japan's Prince Hitachi with the Praemium Imperiale, the Japan Art Association's highest award. In Singapore recently to promote his new book, The Ritualistic Pathway: Five Projects by Charles Correa, the 64-year-old planner told Asia, Inc. Correspondent Salil Tripathi that Asians need not repeat past architectural follies and excesses:

There is a deja vu quality about Asia's new buildings. We are living a dream, but it is a banal middle-American dream, decades after Americans have rejected it. The Americans think it is terrible, but we Asians seem to want to replicate it because we have money.

Asia's economies are booming -- we can afford high-tech buildings, and the people here have aspirations. But architects will give their best only if society knows the difference between good and bad. There is a great difference between literature and writing. Harold Robbins is not literature; Shakespeare is. The tallest building in the world could be a tour de force of construction, but not necessarily of architecture. You are not talking of art here, but of a building boom, which is like talking of best-sellers.

Despite our region's financial growth we have nothing that compares to the Rockefeller Center, a wonderful statement of New York City in the 1930s. That building shows that you can express yourself even through a high-rise. The center's art-deco design comes alive even today, when the annual Christmas tree is set aglow and young and old skate happily on its ice rink.

It was in turn-of-the-century America when self-made millionaires commissioned architects like Frank Lloyd Wright to create a Brave New World of design. Instead of importing European lifestyles, Wright's clients wanted original architecture. We must understand that impulse and learn from it.

At a crude level, Asia's high-rise construction boom reveals ambition, not aspiration. Aspiration signifies what you want to do to make your environment better. A skyscraper may not be the best way to reveal your aspiration, but it might reveal your ambition. It's said that "We make our buildings, and then our buildings make us." Good buildings help a society define itself.

Asia need not look far for inspiration. Here, we have the temple of Borobudur, which is art and architecture at its highest level. It is not fair to expect commercial development to equal Borobudur, but you certainly need an agenda. In this sense, the client is as important as the architect. You need clients who want to be on that cutting edge. That desire created the Renaissance in Europe. It required courage among people to be on that edge -- that's what made them commission Michelangelo.

All you need are three sensitive and brave clients in a row with three or four major projects and you'd see an Asian architectural breakthrough. People are influenced by new prototypes and respond to new signals. The images may not be perfect at first, but in one generation you will have a new urban landscape. Without that courage and imagination, society will get what it deserves.